Is Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal someone the president can afford to fire?
Even some of McChrystal's staunchest backers in Afghanistan said the derisive comments the general and his staff made about the Obama administration to a Rolling Stone reporter leave him open to dismissal.
"I say this as someone who admired and respects Stan McChrystal enormously. The country doesn't know how much good he's done. But this is a firing offense," said Eliot A. Cohen, who served as a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the latter days of the Bush administration.
The sentiment that McChrystal and his staff had crossed an almost sacred line in criticizing the civilian chain of command was almost universal. McChrystal quickly apologized for his remarks and was summoned to Washington to further explain them. "This is clearly a firing offense," said Peter Feaver, a former official in the Bush White House and strong backer of a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
But relieving McChrystal of his command on the eve of a major offensive in Kandahar, which White House and Pentagon officials have said is the most critical of the war, would be a major blow to the war effort, said military experts. The president has set a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, creating massive pressure on the military and McChrystal to make progress in stabilizing Afghanistan this summer and fall when troop levels are at their peak.
"My advice is to call him back to Washington, publicly chastise him and then make it clear that there is something greater at stake here," said Nathaniel Fick, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security. "It takes time for anyone to get up to speed, and right now time is our most precious commodity in Afghanistan." If Obama believes the current counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan is the right one, then he cannot afford to jettison McChrystal, Fick said.
Much of McChrystal's career was spent in the military's secretive special operations community, which has little experience dealing with the press and often views outsiders — even those within the military — with suspicion. Some of the most damaging statements in the Rolling Stone article were from McChrystal's staff officers, who are also drawn heavily from the special operations community.
The general's relationship with the press contrasts significantly with that of Gen. David Petraeus, who spent a far larger segment of his career in Washington and is far more practiced in dealing with reporters and the civilian leadership. Petraeus's staff officers also tended to have extensive Washington experience, as well as background fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Petraeus and his staff would never put itself in this situation," said Cohen.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates issued a statement saying that McChrystal made "a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment" in the Rolling Stone profile. It was Gates's decision to recall McChrystal to Washington to discuss the incident with him, according to the statement. The general is also expected to be summoned to the White House.
One big question will be whether the current team in Afghanistan, which includes Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and special representative Richard Holbrooke, can continue to function as a team. There have been repeated reports of tension among the three men going back to last year's review of the war strategy.
The statements by McChrystal criticizing both Eikenberry and Holbrooke could make the relationship difficult to repair. "I think the administration really needs to think about the whole team they have got," Cohen said. "It is a dysfunctional team."
If White House officials are contemplating ousting McChrystal, they are likely to consider the damage that would do to the relationships McChrystal has built with senior Afghan and Pakistani officials. In Kabul, McChrystal has earned a reputation for his candid, unscripted style and a strong work ethic; Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday issued a statement in support of the general.
Meanwhile, a strong working relationship with the top U.S. general and Islamabad is seen as a central part of the war strategy.
A senior Pakistani government official said Monday that many in Pakistan already believe the Americans lack a long-term strategy in Afghanistan. The possibility of McChrystal's being removed only deepens Pakistan's skepticism about chances for a U.S. victory in Afghanistan, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive policy assessment.
"Now, the person who helped craft that strategy, if he's not on the scene, how will you take this process forward?" the official added.
The statements by McChrystal and the reaction from the White House also reflect a deeper tension between the civilians and the military that dates back to last fall. Recently those tensions were revisited in a book, by Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter, in which senior administration officials seemed to question the military's tactics in boxing in the civilian leadership. "It was a foolish interview that McChrystal gave," Feaver said. "But this is the umpteenth round going back and forth."
The tension isn't unique to the Obama administration. President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also faced criticism from uniformed military and retired generals who called for Rumsfeld's ouster in 2006. Some military analysts said that the increasing politicization of the military is a product of the fact that such a small portion of the force is being summoned for repeat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The strain has created a sense of entitlement and frustration with a civilian world that hasn't made significant sacrifices.
"A lot of the blame falls on the military," Fick said. "The military has been too willing to look the other way when officers make political statements."
Londoño reported from Kabul. Staff writer Karin Brulliard in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.